A bright yellow banner yells at me as soon as I open the app. “Use Stitcher To Get All Your Podcasts In One Place. Go now!” I avert my eyes and start glancing through new episodes, avoiding the rectangular block of glowing yellow that calls out to me from the top of the screen. A pop-up appears: “Use Stitcher To Get All Your Podcasts In One Place. Stitcher Premium Benefits: 70k+ shows ad-free with your Howl subscription. Same premium shows you love from Howl.” I smash my finger on the arrow in the corner to dismiss the message. The yellow banner remains, but that is less bothersome; the top of my phone screen is not that important, anyway.
In April of 2015, Midroll Media, the advertising parent company of the Earwolf comedy podcasting network, released an iOS app called Howl. The app—released online with very little fanfare or promotion—provided an alternative podcasting application for iPhone users. This app was going to change the podcast landscape forever. It was the future. A few short years later, the app is essentially defunct. It has been nearly a year and a half since developers stopped working on the app, the last update having featured the addition of the aggressive “switch to Stitcher!” banners that haunt me daily. Even though it is out of date, temperamental, and actively begging me to stop using it, I will continue to use Howl for my podcast listening until the day I die. Or, you know, at least until Howl is removed from the app store and I cannot download it onto a new phone. Whichever comes first.
The podcast fan has many options for listening: Apple Podcasts, Downcast, PocketCasts, Pod Wrangler, Podbean, Overcast, Soundcloud, Spotify, and countless other apps and methods. Upon its initial launch, Howl was a unique app in that it was specifically and exclusively for Earwolf shows, which include a few dozen niche comedy podcasts with cult-like followings such as Comedy Bang! Bang!, Hollywood Handbook, and improv4humans, as well as lifestyle and culture programming shows like Yo, Is This Racist? and I Was There Too.[1.“Shows,” Earwolf, earwolf.com/shows] Howl was free to download, and free to listen to all episodes of all shows on the network, which boasts its devotion to “creating the best, funniest, most entertaining and thought-provoking digital content there is.”[2.“About.” Earwolf, earwolf.com/about] Both the casual Earwolf listener and the most devoted fan—I myself fall somewhere very close to the latter—heard about Howl through podcast advertisements during episodes of shows on the network around this time. Howl was a nice idea, a novel thing, but no one was tapping down the doors of the app store to download it. From its earliest inception, Howl left a lot to be desired from both a technical and design standpoint: A downloaded episode could stop playing at any random moment, the search function was dismal, and there was no sleep timer.[3.July Diaz, “HOWL – NEW iOS App,” Earwolf Forum post, May 12, 2015, forum.earwolf.com/topic/22737-howl-new-ios-app/] But at least it was free.
This changed in July of 2015, when the media-conglomerate-and-spelling-bee-running E.W. Scripps Company acquired Midroll Media.[4.“Scripps Acquires Podcast Industry Leader Midroll,” The E.W. Scripps Company, July 22, 2015, scripps.com/press-releases/891-scripps-acquires-podcast-industry-leader-midroll] A month later, in August of 2015, a new version of Howl was released: Howl Premium, or “Howl version 2.0,” as the company’s press release affectionately called it. The new “premium” layer of Howl was available on the iOS app and on the web at Howl.FM for a small fee of $4.99 per month. By paying for premium, listeners gained access to the entire ad-free archive of WTF with Marc Maron, ad-free archives of all Earwolf shows, a host of stand-up albums from comedians with and without shows on Earwolf, and new content being developed exclusively for Howl Premium subscribers.[5.“Midroll Media Launches ‘Howl Premium’ for IOS & Howl.FM,” The E.W. Scripps Company, August 17, 2015, scripps.com/press-releases/940-midroll-media-launches-howl-premium-for-ios-howlfm] The release of Howl Premium and the relatively revolutionary idea that listeners should pay for the previously free content they enjoy changed the podcast game forever.
The rollout of the premium features of Howl Premium was slow. The WTF archives were there, and so were the comedy albums, and so were the shows developed exclusively for premium subscribers. But the promise of ad-free archives of all Earwolf shows was not fulfilled until May of 2016. At this time, Earwolf began de-publishing episodes older than 6 months from iTunes, forcing the reluctant listener’s hand. If you wanted to listen to an episode of How Did This Get Made? from eight months ago, you had to start paying $4.99 per month.[6.Shannon Locke, “Announcement Re: Howl & Earwolf Ad-Free Archives (PLEASE READ),” Earwolf Forum post, May 23, 2016, forum.earwolf.com/topic/34575-announcement-re-howl-earwolf-ad-free-archives-please-read/] Hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of comedy had been sitting in iTunes, not earning money for the performers or producers who created them, and not gaining new listenership, either. Television shows used to monetize old seasons by putting out DVD sets; today, they license old seasons to streaming services like Netflix, so that fans can pay a monthly fee to get access to their favorite shows. Earwolf aimed to monetize the archives of their podcasts in the same way, by making listeners pay to stream old episodes.
Earwolf wanted to see Howl become Netflix for podcasts: a streaming service that provided old classics and new original content for a monthly fee.[7.Herman, Alison. “New App Howl Aims to Be ‘Netflix for Podcasting,’” Flavorwire, August 17, 2015, flavorwire.com/533388/new-app-howl-aims-to-be-netflix-for-podcasting] Still, only Earwolf shows were available on Howl; in the same way that Brooklyn 99 is only available on Hulu but Parks and Recreation is on Netflix, listeners would have to turn to Howl for their Earwolf shows and iTunes for their NPR shows, their Maximum Fun shows, and everything else.[8.Scott Aukerman, “QUESTIONS FOR SCOTT RE: HOWL,” Earwolf Forum post, August 17, 2015, forum.earwolf.com/topic/25100-questions-for-scott-re-howl/] Earwolf dreamed of the day that Howl would become the one-stop place for all podcasts, across all networks.
At the beginning of June 2016, two important things happened in the life of Howl: On June 2, Howl gained access to the first thirteen seasons of one of the oldest podcasts, Never Not Funny.[9.Shannon Locke, “NNF Seasons 1-13 Now In Howl Premium!!,” Earwolf Forum post, June 2, 2016, forum.earwolf.com/topic/35140-nnf-seasons-1-13-now-in-howl-premium/] I had just recently begun listening to Never Not Funny, but could not access the archives that go back to 2006. Previously, to listen to any episodes prior to season 14 (the point at which the show joined Earwolf), you had to buy individual seasons for $19.99, much like buying individual DVDs for each year of a television show.[10.“Premium Content,” Never Not Funny, pardcast.com/premiumGuest.php] The idea that I could pay $4.99 a month—not a few hundred dollars all at once—to listen to those old episodes appealed to me. Though I had resisted it up until that point, I signed up for Howl Premium on June 2, 2016.
On June 6, 2016, Midroll Media acquired Stitcher, one of the most popular podcasting apps with over sixty-five thousand podcasts and eight million users.[11.“Midroll Media Acquires Pioneering Podcast Platform Stitcher,” Midroll, June 6, 2016, midroll.com/midroll-media-acquires-pioneering-podcast-platform-stitcher/] Immediately, a merging of Howl’s small, community centered content onto Stitcher’s crowded, oversaturated interface was initiated.
Though blissfully unaware at the time, I now see that my love affair with Howl was doomed four days in.
I had no grand intention of doing this, but I happened to make my way through the Never Not Funny archives during my semester abroad in Spain. As I traveled around Europe, spending long hours on planes and buses and subways, I listened to episodes of a comedy podcast from the late aughts; I heard comedians celebrate President Obama’s first inauguration on a flight to Budapest, and I listened as they marveled at the idea of mobile check deposit on a train ride from Rome to Venice. I used Howl every single day: Opening that app signified a turn inward, a time for a private, grounding experience. If I was in a new place, overwhelmed by a new language, I could open Howl and be instantly connected with familiar, comforting, funny voices. Howl became a dear, reliable friend during an uncertain time in my life.
By December of 2016, Howl originals began migrating over to Stitcher. Early in February of 2017, Midroll stopped developing the Howl app: Listeners were left to fight slow downloads and bugs all on their own.[12.“Version History,” Howl: The Official Earwolf & WTF w/ Marc Maron App, iTunes, itunes.apple.com/us/app/howl-official-earwolf-wolfpop/id984343503?mt=8] In June of 2017, Stitcher Premium was launched: a Howl version 3.0, of sorts.[13.Shannon Locke, “A Message From Our CEO Re: Howl –> Stitcher Premium,” Earwolf Forum post, June 5, 2017, forum.earwolf.com/topic/46247-a-message-from-our-ceo-re-howl-stitcher-premium/] Everything from Howl was now available on Stitcher, a much bigger and more densely populated podcasting app. Those bright banners appeared, urging Howl listeners to move over to Stitcher. Many did. I refused.
I fell in love with Howl because it managed to achieve a feat at which many apps attempt but fail: It has a personality. Does a lot of that personality come from its failures, from those moments of download error panic when an episode’s play button turns to an X, like a cartoon character’s eyes in death? Or those times when the app just decides to close on its own, disappearing for a moment before pleading for forgiveness when you inevitably open the app a few seconds later, giving it another chance? Sure, that helps. But its personality also comes from the content it peddles. Howl is an intermediary, after all, for a very personal medium. Podcasting is a unique form of entertainment in terms of the immediate, intimate, one-sided relationship that is formed between speaker and listener. The physical experience of listening to a podcast is different than any other form of entertainment because it is so deeply personal; people listen to podcasts alone, usually with headphones. In the words of podcast luminary Matt Gourley, podcasts are “mostly delivered inches from your brain via a speaker that also serves as an earplug to shut the rest of the world out.”[14.Matt Gourley (@goSuperego), “LET’S GET THIS STARTY PARTED. I’M MATT GOURLEY. ASK ME ANYTHING.,” Reddit AMA, October 7, 2015, reddit.com/r/Earwolf/comments/3nwwbl/lets_get_this_starty_parted_im_matt_gourley_ask/cvs8vqj/] Despite its flaws, Howl has delivered the podcasts I love—and only the podcasts I love—a few inches from my brain, consistently, for years now. While, admittedly, the small selection of shows available on Howl does not appeal to an incredibly wide audience, it appeals to me. That’s enough.
Howl was a fresh and innovative idea when it hit the app store in 2015. A mere two years later, the flashy Stitcher Premium took its place, and Howl was swept aside. It was literally abandoned by its parent company and developers. While the app could be considered defunct as new developments and improvements ended nearly two years ago, the podcast feeds were not cut off; new episodes of Earwolf shows still appear in Howl’s clunky, buggy, old interface. As Howl clings to life, I cling to it: I still use the app almost every day to listen to old, ad-free episodes of my favorite shows.
But I must confess something. I downloaded Stitcher a few months ago. My god, it pains me to say that. I use it to listen to premium content as it comes out. While Howl still gets new premium content, episodes that are released on Tuesdays sometimes do not appear in the app until Thursday or Friday. I am a very busy person; I cannot fall behind on my podcasts like that. I have a playlist within Stitcher entitled “Slow Premium,” where I shamefully go to listen to new episodes of Hollywood Handbook: Pro Version and Who Charted? Preem Stream on the days they are released, and then I sorrowfully mark them “played” when they appear in Howl a few days later.
Howl remains on my first page of apps. Stitcher has been relegated to the fifth page—FIFTH—and I do not see it moving any time soon. As Howl continues to slow and nears its digital death, I fear I am losing a friend. I do not want a new friend that has tens of thousands of podcasts available on the day they are released. I want my old friend, the friend that traveled the world with me, to continue to give me content days behind schedule. I want my friend who knows our inside jokes, not everyone’s inside jokes. Every single day, when Howl’s pop-up banner tells me to switch to Stitcher, my heart sinks, because I know what is really happening. It wants to let me down easy, to get me listening elsewhere so it can silently fade from my phone while my ears are tied to another app. But I will not let it; we have been through too much. For as long as it stands, I will stand by my friend. Stitcher may eventually gain my listenership, but it will never, ever gain my heart.